The deaths of four people, including two children, who drowned attempting to cross the English Channel yesterday underscores the need to tackle traffickers, according to senior government leaders.
Meanwhile, campaigning organizations said it should be a “wake-up” call for French and British authorities to better protect refugee rights.
Senior government figures laid the blame on criminal gangs that they say incentivize people to try to cross the busiest shipping lane in the world on semi-inflatable boats, with the prime minister saying they would “crack down” on traffickers.
The incident off the coast of France yesterday morning is believed to be one of the worst recent disasters in the Channel.
Some campaigning organizations, including Save the Children, described those making the crossings as refugees fleeing “conflict, persecution and poverty” and called for stronger refugee protections.
A search and rescue operation was launched yesterday morning when a boat was spotted in difficulty off the coast of Dunkirk before sinking.
Reports suggest that there were 19 to 20 people on board the semi-rigid inflatable. Authorities reported taking 18 to hospital. Local media said that four people had died.
One survivor was later found at sea, according to authorities, and airlifted to hospital in the search and rescue operation that followed.
Further search and rescue efforts were called off at 6 p.m. local time after no further survivors were found, as darkness fell.
A charity that works with refugees in France, Care4Calais, said that people were pushed to risk the crossing because of British and French policies.
“Living in miserable conditions on the streets of Calais, hounded by the police, and left with no clear, legal process to have their UK asylum cases heard, refugees feel they have no other option but to take huge risks to make it to Britain, and some pay with their lives,” Care4Calais said in a statement.
Boris Johnson said that his thoughts were with the loved ones of the victims
“We have offered the French authorities every support as they investigate this terrible incident, and will do all we can to crack down on the ruthless criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable people by facilitating these dangerous journeys,” he said in a statement.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government’s approach was to “remove the incentive for people trying to make this dangerous crossing,” told BBC Breakfast.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the home affairs committee, said that the deaths of the children was heartbreaking. “These boats are so dangerous. The gangs who organise them profit from other people’s desperation by putting lives at terrible risk,” she wrote on Twitter.
With numbers of people making the crossing surging this year to over 7,400, the government in the summer announced plans to intercept and return boats.
In 2018, just 299 people made the crossing, rising to 1,835 in 2019, according to Home Office figures.
This year, six times as many people made the crossing. During the summer, with warmer water and calmer seas, on some days hundreds of people were making made the 21-mile journey through the busiest shipping lane in the world.
More people made the crossing in September than in the whole of the previous year.